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Brandon Morrow: Projecting 2015 and Beyond

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What can pitchers with similar career arcs to Brandon Morrow's tell us about what to expect from him in 2015 and beyond?

Brandon Morrow
Brandon Morrow
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Morrow and his future with the Jays has been a hot and mostly played out topic of discussion recently, and we'll know for certain in the next day or so what the Jays do with their 2015 team option on him. In the interim, I want to take one last look at something that still provokes a fair bit of disagreement: what is a fair expectation of what Morrow could contribute in 2015 and beyond.

Broadly speaking, there's basically two points of view. The first camp sees a very talented pitcher, but an oft-injured one who at age 30 had never pitched 180 innings in a season and has flaws as a starting pitcher. Going forward then, we should continue to expect significant chunks of missed time, and perhaps belongs in the pen regardless. His 2015 option should accordingly be declined. The second camp sees Morrow as an average or better starter, whose missed time has not been for overly serious issues. Going forward, we should "discount" the last couple seasons, and expect mostly healthy seasons of solid rotation performance. Therefore, exercise the option.

Most baseball projection systems are built on a fundamental of weighting recent performance (usually 3-4 years), supplemented by regression towards the previous expectation (usually average, not sometimes a group of similar players) and building in some aging. Most of the time, this gives us a pretty good idea but in the case of a player like Morrow with such disparate results between 2010-12 and 2013-14 driven by more idiosyncratic factors, it's not necessarily so helpful.

An alternate approach, and one I think works better in this case, is to construct a group of historically similar players to Morrow, and look at their career arc to try and get an idea. Fundamental of this of course is building a reasonable comparison set, otherwise the analysis is basically Garbage In, Garbage Out.

To build that comp set, I started with all 2,897 players who pitched in the last 20 years and screened according to three criteria:

  1. Accumulated at least 100 innings as a starting pitcher for three consecutive seasons
  2. Accumulated at least 5 fWAR over those 3 years
  3. Started no more than 100 innings in each of the next two seasons after the initial three years

The first and third screens are playing time based, to select players who were at least reasonably healthy like Morrow and then missed significant time. The second criteria is to select pitcher of similar quality to Morrow (he totalled 9.5 fWAR, but I set it lower since he had just 6 bWAR). Essentially, the pitcher much have been at least an average starting pitcher who pitched substantial innings.

From 1995-2014, there were 1,061 instances of a pitcher starting 100 innings for three straight years (includes overlap, so for example Buerhle has 12 such instances). The pitcher accumulated 5 fWAR in 869 of those three year sequences (82%), and failed to throw 100 starting innings for the next two seasons 198 times (19%). There were 119 instances when all three conditions were present, which is what we're interested in but is still too broad.

This screen caught a lot of aging veterans on the tail end of their careers, who either retired or declined past the point of being MLB useful starters. These are not similar to Morrow's situation, so I set a 4th inclusion criteria that the player had to be mo older than 27 in the first season being considered (meaning the first three good seasons were age 27-29 at latest, the two bad seasons age 30-31, and then the rest of the career afterwards). Morrow was 25 when this began. Also, since we want to look at what they did going forward, I only used sequences starting in 2007 to get 3 future years. This cut the list to 37 pitchers.

From there, I removed 4 pitchers (among them Mike Sirotka, a ghost of Blue Jays past) who after the first three good years never pitched. They all suffered essentially career ending injuries, which nullifies any comparison to Morrow. I removed another 6 (among them Brandon Webb, Mark Prior and the deceased Joe Kennedy) who never pitched again after their two bad years, since Morrow was healthy at the end of the year so again there's little basis for comparison.

That gives a reasonable list of 27 pitchers who careers are comparable to Morrow at this point in this career (all data from Fangraphs):

First 3 Years Next 2 Years 6th Year Years 6-8
Player Year 1 Age IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR
Jim Parque 1998 22 468.2 5.6 53.1 42.1 (1.0) 17.1 17.1 (0.2) 17.1 17.1 (0.2)
Jeremy Bonderman 2005 22 577.1 12.3 81.2 75.1 0.1 171.0 170.0 0.8 171.0 170.0 0.8
Steve Woodard 1998 23 444.2 7.0 114.2 49.2 1.0 17.2 0.0 0.0 17.2 0.0 0.0
Dontrelle Willis 2005 23 664.3 9.4 57.2 56.2 (0.7) 65.2 63.2 (0.1) 140.4 138.4 0.5
Brett Tomko 1997 24 484.3 6.2 126.3 60.3 (0.1) 204.1 204.1 0.7 600.3 594.2 4.2
Chris Carpenter 1999 24 521.4 6.8 73.1 73.1 0.7 182.0 182.0 2.8 644.4 644.4 13.5
Wade Miller 2001 24 563.3 9.6 179.2 179.2 2.5 21.2 21.2 (0.1) 34.4 34.4 (0.4)
Joey Hamilton 1996 25 614.5 5.7 131.0 127.2 1.6 139.2 139.2 1.7 273.6 229.4 3.0
Kerry Wood 2002 25 564.3 9.6 85.2 73.2 0.3 24.1 0.0 0.4 145.2 0.0 2.9
Randy Wolf 2002 25 546.4 7.7 136.2 136.2 0.3 102.2 102.2 1.7 506.4 505.7 6.6
Mark Mulder 2003 25 616.4 8.9 104.1 104.1 (1.1) 1.2 0.1 0.0 1.2 0.1 0.0
Jason Jennings 2004 25 535.0 7.8 126.1 125.1 (0.4) 61.0 0.0 0.3 61.0 0.0 0.3
Chien-Ming Wang 2005 25 527.4 9.6 137.0 129.0 1.9 0.0 0.0 0.0 94.2 83.3 (0.3)
Frank Castillo 1995 26 553.3 6.8 116.0 92.0 1.0 138.0 137.0 2.2 437.3 403.4 7.1
Brian Moehler 1998 26 595.2 9.7 71.0 69.2 0.5 13.2 13.2 (0.2) 171.3 151.2 1.6
Darren Dreifort 1998 26 534.2 6.3 94.2 94.2 0.9 60.1 60.1 1.2 110.3 60.1 1.4
Dustin Hermanson 1999 26 595.4 5.5 90.2 38.1 0.1 131.0 104.0 1.7 194.3 104.0 2.9
Sidney Ponson 2003 26 561.3 8.0 122.2 116.4 0.3 135.2 134.2 1.1 193.4 184.3 1.6
Erik Bedard 2005 26 519.3 13.2 164.0 164.0 2.8 0.0 0.0 0.0 254.3 254.3 3.1
Chris Capuano 2005 26 575.1 7.3 0.0 0.0 0.0 66.0 45.2 0.6 450.1 428.3 4.4
Tom Gordon 1995 27 569.3 11.6 96.3 0.0 3.2 0.0 0.0 0.0 87.3 0.0 2.1
Wilson Alvarez 1997 27 513.5 7.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 75.0 47.0 0.1 290.2 193.3 4.3
Chan Ho Park 2000 27 605.2 7.9 124.4 124.4 (0.2) 155.1 152.2 2.0 295.3 288.2 2.2
Carl Pavano 2003 27 521.1 7.8 11.1 11.1 0.2 34.1 34.1 0.1 454.2 453.5 6.8
Freddy Garcia 2004 27 654.1 12.2 73.0 73.0 0.1 56.0 56.0 1.6 359.2 358.2 5.1
Jake Westbrook 2005 27 573.3 9.3 34.2 34.2 0.4 202.2 202.2 1.6 559.5 559.5 4.4
Chris Young 2006 27 454.2 6.1 96.0 96.0 0.0 24.0 24.0 0.2 139.0 139.0 1.0
Average 553.8 8.3 92.5 79.4 0.5 77.6 70.7 0.7 248.2 222.0 2.9
Brandon Morrow 2010 25 449.4 9.5 87.2 81.2 0.4

The first set of column is information about the player: the first year of the sequence (so 2010 for Morrow), and his age in that year. The next set of columns shows how many innings he started (IP-S) over the first three years (the good stretch), and his fWAR. The next set shows the same information for the two bad years, as well as total innings.

The last two sets deal with what the pitchers did going forward, both the rebound year (6th year) and three years in the future (Years 6-8).

So let's break this down. In their three good years, the pitchers averaged 550 innings and 8.3 fWAR. Morrow ends up on the low end innings wise, but was more productive in terms of fWAR, though more like equally productive if we used bWAR instead. And then collapsed the next two years, starting just 80 innings and pitching only 90 on average with 0.5 fWAR. This average fits almost perfectly with Morrow. All in all, a pretty decent basis of comparison.

So how did these pitchers rebound? On average, just 70 innings started and 0.7 WAR. Over the next 3 years, just 220 innings about 3 WAR, or the equivalent of about one healthy and good season. The average pitcher provided some value, but far below where their previous level of performance. It's a cautionary tale about what to expect from Morrow.

Of note, there's one pitcher who was much better, and that's another Ghost of Blue Jays, Chris Carpenter. We all know that story, and really I don't think he's a particularly good comparison considering his problem was the shoulder and recovery was unprecedented. Looking through the individual circumstances, there's another 7 pitchers I also don't think are good comparisons: Parque, Woodard, Mulder, Wang, Wood, Miller, Gordon. Heading into their 6th years, most where essentially done totally or as starters due to serious recurring injuries, generally rotator cuff and shoulders. Wood and Gordon are interesting as guys who delivered value in relief.

If those 8 are removed, that leaves a core group of 19 similar players, whose averages compared to Morrow are shown below:

First 3 Years Next 2 Years 6th Year Years 6-8
Player Year 1 Age IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR
Average 561.9 8.2 87.1 78.6 0.4 96.5 88.8 0.9 298.0 274.5 3.2
Brandon Morrow 2010 25 449.4 9.5 87.2 81.2 0.4

On balance, they did better than the above group, averaging 90 innings started and just under 1.0 WAR in the rebound season, and about 275 innings and just over 3 WAR in the 3 seasons afterwards. Reasonably productive, though not very durable pitchers on average.

Averages are not the only thing of course. Broadly speaking, we can put the players in 3 groups. Of the 19, four or five came close to replicating their previous performance. About 7-9 were clearly not as good as before, but still provided a decent amount of value. The final 7-9 were essentially replacement players.

If we used this information to try and project Morrow in the future, I'd estimate there's about a 20% chance Morrow can repeat what he did in 2010-2012, about a 40% chance he'll be an injury prone/diminished starter, and about a 40% chance he's close to replacement level as a starter

So what about the team option? Only 2 pitchers of the above rebounded to pitch 200 innings, and just 9/19 even got to 100 innings. 7/19 provided more than 1.5 WAR, which is roughly the breakeven point for the option to make sense financially. 9/19 provided less than 1 WAR, and none were really above average. Exercising the 2015 option would be a pretty big gamble, especially since it's likely an either/or between keep Morrow and Happ. Morrow might have a little more upside, but in 2015 especially it's unlikely much greater with substantially lower downside.

Addendum

See addendum comment below

Control Group 1: (average of 99 players)

First 3 Years Next 2 Years 6th Year Years 6-8
IP WAR IP IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR
584.3 10.3 376.9 373.6 5.8 142.8 140.5 1.8 374.7 362.0 4.6

Control Group 2: (average of 85 players)

First 3 Years Next 2 Years 6th Year Years 6-8
IP WAR IP IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR IP IP-S WAR
588.4 10.6 378.4 376.1 6.3 151.6 150.3 1.9 398.1 392.5 5.0